U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was described by Judge Richard A. Posner, a law clerk at the Court while he was there, as “bored, distracted, un-collegial, irresponsible … rude, ice-cold, hot-tempered, ungrateful, foul-mouthed, self-absorbed …”
He was also accused of abusing both alcohol and women.
Posner called him “one of the most unwholesome figures in modern American political history.”
Douglas’s daughter, Millie, said her father “never talked to us like people” and “I didn’t like him very much because of the way he treated my mother.”
But when he retired after 36 years on the federal bench, President Gerald Ford said, “Your distinguished years of service are unequaled in all the history of the Court.”
Singing in the movie “The King and I,” Yul Brunner’s line “it is a puzzlement” could well have described Supreme Court Justice Douglas.
William Orville Douglas was born on Oct. 16, 1898, in Maine, Minn., to Reverend William and Julia Douglas. When he was 5 years old, his father died in Portland, Ore., and his mother moved the family to Yakima.
In 1916, Douglas graduated at the top of his class at Yakima High School, and then received a partial scholarship at Whitman College in Walla Walla, where he earned a B.A. degree in English and economics, along with a Phi Beta Kappa key.
After a short stint teaching at Yakima High, he went to Columbia University for his law degree, graduating second in his class. His first wife, Mildred, helped pay for it.
Then he went to work at a Wall Street law firm while teaching at Columbia on the side, and later at Yale.
Douglas was a Democrat and progressive who played poker with FDR, who appointed him to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
He became chairman in 1937 and as the “investors’ advocate,” took on the Wall Street fat cats at the New York Stock Exchange, which unsurprisingly earned him more than a few enemies.
Two years later, Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis retired and Roosevelt nominated Douglas to replace him.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing took place just four days after FDR’s announcement and lasted only five minutes. He was confirmed by a Senate vote of 62 to four.
It would be hard to imagine Supreme Court justices following in his footsteps today. Who would agree to Roosevelt’s internment of citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II? And who’d trek 185 miles to protest building a new highway?
As a justice on the Supreme Court, he’d scratch out his opinions sometimes within 20 minutes with virtually no editing.
He was a darling to liberals, an anathema to conservatives, and 40 percent of the time a vexation to his fellow Supreme Court justices.
FDR, Truman and environmentalists were his pals; Nixon, Ford and Wall Street his enemies.
Those who applaud or rile at President Trump’s “un-presidential” tweets today are little different than supporters and detractors in Douglas’s day who reacted to his “coarse diatribes, loaded with obscenity, against those he thought were out to get him.”
Douglas stood firm on the First Amendment, believing it should be interpreted “literally,” and said “The Constitution is not neutral. It was designed to take the government off the backs of the people …”
He thumbed his nose at today’s common law concept of adjudication based on decisions in previous applicable cases — a system dating back to 13th century England.
He flip-flopped on the controversial Vietnam War, first supporting it, and then later calling it “illegal.”
From his boyhood days in Washington state, Douglas loved nature and devoted much of his life outside the Supreme Court as an environmental activist.
“Wild Bill,” his friends called him.
He loved the beauty of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and saved it from developers turning it into a highway.
Likewise, he stopped a project to build a highway along a pristine beach on the Olympic Peninsula.
Battling the Corps of Army Engineers, he kept the Buffalo River in Arkansas a free-flowing waterway — later designated as America’s first National River.
Douglas was also a true outdoorsman — hiking, river rafting and even walking the entire 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.
The Seattle Times said he was a “one-man lobby shop for the environment,” and that he “cajoled and persuaded the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, badgered the Forest Service and the National Park Service, and inveigled members of Congress to support his causes.”
It was no surprise for the Sierra Club to invite him to join its board of directors.
He may be best remembered for his novel concept in the 1972 Sierra Club v. Morton case that “inanimate objects” should have the right to sue in court if they are “about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded by roads and bulldozers and where injury is the subject of public outrage.”
That included “valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life.
“The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes — fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life.”
His high-energy zeal for the outdoors almost cost him his life when he was horseback riding on the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. He was thrown from his horse, breaking 23 ribs and suffering a punctured lung when the horse rolled over him.
His recovery was long and painful, but he spent the time editing his classic book “Of Men and Mountains,” telling about his intimate connection with nature.
Remarkably, he wrote some 30 books in his spare time during the 36-plus years on the high court.
He also had ambitions of higher office, but declined an offer of being vice president.
Before the 1944 Democratic convention in Chicago, FDR gave a hand-written note to the pro-Truman party chairman naming “Harry Truman or Bill Douglas” as his choice for vice president. The convention picked Truman.
Douglas supporters claimed that the note was doctored and originally read “Bill Douglas or Harry Truman,” not the other way around, indicating that Douglas was really FDR’s first choice.
Roosevelt died the following year and Truman became president, and for the rest of his life, Douglas felt he was robbed.
Running for re-election in 1948, Truman offered Douglas the vice presidency but he didn’t accept it — preferring the financial security of staying on the Supreme Court.
Then Douglas turned his attention to pursuing attractive young women.
One of them was 23-year-old Allegheny College student Joan Martin, who was writing her senior thesis about him. The affair soon became public.
“Other Justices at the time had mistresses,” said Supreme Court messenger Harry Datcher, “but they would employ them as secretaries or keep them away from the Court building. Douglas, though, did what he did in the open.
“He didn’t give a damn what people thought of him.”
Douglas divorced his second wife, Mercedes, who was six years his senior, and at 64 married 23-year-old Joan Martin.
Two years later, he dallied with Elena Leonardo, a former girlfriend from Washington state. Then he divorced Joan and in 1966 married his fourth wife, 23-year-old Oregon waitress Cathleen Heffernan.
On New Year’s Eve 1974, Douglas suffered a massive stroke while vacationing in the Bahamas. President Ford immediately sent a military plane to bring him home.
Ford had long been an opponent of the staunch liberal Justice, having tried unsuccessfully to impeach him in 1970 for “financial impropriety.”
Douglas expected to recover and return to work, but instead retired the following year and died in 1980 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
History has given him mixed reviews from being a “legal giant” to “slipshod and slapdash.”
When Douglas thought about retiring, he wrote his pal and former student Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas: “My ideas are way out of line with current trends, and I see no particular point in staying around and being obnoxious.”
Obnoxious or not, William O. Douglas was certainly one of America’s busiest and most colorful Supreme Court justices.
He was “a puzzlement.”
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Individuals above Constitution…
In the famous 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut case decriminalizing the use of contraceptives, Justice William O. Douglas wrote that “individuals have certain moral rights against their government that are prior to all law — including the Constitution.”
Douglas argument rejected…
Using the word “ecology” for the first time in a U.S. Supreme Court case — Udall v. Federal Power Commission — Justice Douglas argued in 1967 that no dam should be built on the Snake River that flows through Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Today, there are 15 dams on the river.
Lessons in life…
“I worked among the very, very poor, the migrant laborers, the Chicanos, and the TWWs (International Workers of the World) who I saw being shot at by the police. I saw cruelty and hardness, and my impulse was to be a force in other developments in the law.”
— William O. Douglas, justice, U.S. Supreme Court
Remembering Wild Bill…
William O. Douglas “remains a poignant archetype of how even in the worst of times judges can actually stand up and demand we adhere to our ideals. If more present-day Justices and judges embraced William O. Douglas’s ideals, constitutional liberties would be far safer than they are.”
— David J. Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, reserved for military personnel. His tombstone says “Private, U.S. Army,” based on Douglas having only attended Army boot camp from June to December 1918, though posted rules say burial at Arlington is reserved for “most veterans, who have at least one day of active service (other than for training)…”
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